Facial recognition: Infringing upon privacy or protecting students?

By Natalie Craig

October 23, 2019

Facial recognition gates at the main entrance to Nanjing University’s campus. 
Photo Credits: Natalie Craig

NANJING, China — Nanjing University (NJU), a top institution in China that participates in a partnership with the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC), has become one of many Chinese universities to introduce entry-exit facial recognition technology to its gates. 

For some students, this technology brings about an Orwellian feel. With each pass through the gate, students’ faces are scanned and recognized before entry. With faces and student ID information stored in the system, many HNC students feel that this is a violation of privacy, a greater restriction on their movement within China. For others, this new security measure is viewed primarily as a way to protect students. 

According to the Daily Mail, these efforts are a part of China’s latest five-year plan to modernize schools across the country through its “smart campus initiative.” In the last year alone, China has installed over 200 million security cameras throughout the country. By 2022, the total number of surveillance cameras throughout the country is projected to increase to 2.76 billion, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC). With heightened surveillance, the government can easily monitor students’ movements, adding to its centralized control over the people.

Although this plan was a public government initiative, the students affected remained unaware and without the agency to oppose the installation of these devices. Nanjing University students received no official notice about the implementation of the facial recognition technology preceding its installation. It was only a few days ago that the university finally released information on these facial recognition gates and how they will impact students. The report covered the plan for non-students entering campus and cited the purpose of these gates as a new effort with the Public Security Bureau to aggregate a “gray list” of those who should be denied access to the university, thus ensuring the safety of students. 

“I went up and saw that it recognized my face and my ID number and had a green arrow admitting me into campus, and I felt very uncomfortable and sort of violated,” Amy Bodner, a masters student at the HNC, remarked. 

While the HNC has its own center with separate security on the northeast corner of campus, students still have access to the facilities on NJU’s campus. For second year international students, their information has been entered into the NJU database, so their faces will scan successfully. Certificate students, on the other hand, must either walk around the scanner or ask the guard to let them through, which calls into question the legitimacy and the true purpose of the facial recognition technology.

Two HNC international students attempt to pass through the gates. 
Photo Credits: Amy Bodner and Natalie Craig

“It’s not an effective measure of keeping campus safe because anyone can walk right through; the guards don’t seem to care, so I have to wonder what the actual purpose of this is…I think that it is ineffective at best and disturbing at worst,” Bodner said. 

As for Zhou Jie, a second-year Chinese HNC student, the scanners seem to be as effective as the locks that used to be on the gates at night on campus. “If you are a bad person looking to do harm, you will always be able to find a way to get in, but it may reduce the probability of some bad people from entering campus,” she stated.  

Besides the questionable efficacy of the device, the purpose that it serves is also ambiguous. “I think the purpose is data collection and eventually to restrict movement; I think that these things roll out so slowly that you become acclimated to it and then one day it is actually restrictive,” Brad Hebert, a certificate student, remarked. 

However, many Chinese students believe that this device serves two purposes: to protect students and to restrict the flow of outsiders into campus. A few years ago, at NJU’s Xianlin campus, reports circulated of a woman who had been sexually assaulted on campus. This attack outraged students, and led to widespread desire for a response from the university. According to Zhou Jie, “This probably was not the cause of the implementation of these devices, but is most likely one of the reasons the university installed them so quickly—because students were indignant this harm had taken place.” 

Meanwhile, other Chinese students believe that these facial recognition gates help to reduce the number of non-students on campus. According to Ruoyin, a certificate student, if universities are completely open, then the campus will be filled with too many outsiders. “This could influence students’ studies, so they restrict the flow of tourists,” she said. 

One key idea that both Chinese and international students could agree on with regard to these entry-exit face scanners is that they are restricting. Not only does it limit access, but also it is indicative of a future of control and targeted constraints on migration. 

“I think there is a wave to control migrations of people any way you look at it, whether it be foreigners, ethnic minorities, anyone; I think in different areas it is becoming increasingly strict,” Bodner said. 

While one can only speculate as to the true purpose and future implications of these devices, this pilot program is only a fraction as strict as new measures being taken elsewhere. Pinnacle universities in China, including Beijing University and Qinghua University, have set the trend in heightened security for university campuses throughout the country. This past year, both campuses introduced face scanners, identification card registration systems and the requirement that all visitors be accompanied by a student to enter campus. Although conditions in Nanjing are much more relaxed than in Beijing, it appears to be evidence of a small but definite step toward a more monitored and controlled China.